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Childhood cancer: A guide for an early detection 
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Childhood cancer: A guide for an early detection 

Even though diagnosing cancer in childhood is tricky, experts ensure a high cure rate for childhood cancer if symptoms are caught early
As part of World Cancer Day, parents and their children in CANWALK, a walkathon on Cancer awareness, on 4 February 2024 in Bangalore.

The diagnosis of childhood cancer can be confusing and challenging for parents as not only is it terrifying, but it is also heartbreaking knowing their child must go through the pain. A further concern is that sometimes the signs of cancer in childhood are hard to identify and can only be detected with regular check-ups.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 4,00,000 children and adolescents develop cancer each year throughout the world. 1.6 to 4.8% of all cancers in India are in children below 15 years of age, and over 50,000 children are diagnosed with cancer each year. However, experts say that the cure rate in India has improved over the past couple of decades. It helps if the symptoms are recognized and treated as early as possible. 

Cause of childhood cancer

While studies are still being conducted to understand the causes of childhood cancer, experts say that genetics, environment, and lifestyle changes are most likely the common cause. 

“There are several factors that have been linked to cancer in children, including exposure to air pollution and pesticides, smoking or alcohol consumption, an unbalanced diet, unregulated processed food intake, and conditions like obesity,” says Dr Radheshyam Naik, consultant medical oncologist and hematologist & bone marrow transplant physician, Sammprada Multispeciality Hospital, Bengaluru.  

Depending on the age, childhood cancer can affect infants (below one year), early childhood (1 to 10), and adolescence (11 to 18 years). The most common types of cancers diagnosed in children are:

  • Leukaemia – a blood cancer that affects the spongy tissue in the bone called the bone marrow.
  • Lymphoma – a blood cancer that affects the lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that helps to fight infections.
  • Brain and spinal cord tumor – growth of abnormal cells in the central nervous system.
  • Neuroblastoma – A type of tumor that is developed from immature cells in several areas of the body.
  • Retinoblastoma – Cancer that is developed in the retina in the eye
  • Bone cancer – Cancer that develops in the bone or bone marrow and causes swelling or pain.

Warning signs of childhood cancer

Cancer symptoms present in early childhood and adolescence tend to overlap with those of various other infections, making it difficult to detect them. “Any unusual symptoms the child shows should be reported to their pediatrician immediately. Solid tumors (brain tumors) and blood cancers (Lymphoma, leukemia) are common kinds of cancers in children,” says Dr Jagdish Kathwate, senior consultant, pediatrics & neonatology, Pune. 

However, the symptoms of infantile cancer are difficult to point out due to their consistent crying spells. They are susceptible to developing aggressive forms of cancer due to their immature cells and not fully developed immune system. “Infants tend to cry even at the slightest discomfort, not just when they have stomach aches, cold, or ear pain. It is tough to know the cause when an infant cries. They are unlike the toddlers who can pinpoint where it hurts,” says Dr Satyendra Katewa, consultant pediatric haemato-oncology and bone marrow transplant, HCMCT Manipal Hospital, Dwarka, Delhi.

He urges the parents to keep a watchful eye on their baby’s actions. Retinoblastoma is one of the most common cancers in babies. “Often children with this condition have white pupils, especially if flash is used when taking pictures,” says Dr Katewa. 

He also specifies that abdominal-related cancers like neuroblastoma, Wilms tumor, and lipoblastoma are also seen in infants. “It is usually caught as an unusual lump that is felt on the infant’s stomach when you’re rubbing. There are cases when pediatricians spot something amiss during vaccination visits and advise parents for a further check,” Dr Katewa explains. 

Lymphoma and acute lymphoblastic leukemia are common types of blood cancer in infants. “They are more susceptible to prolonged infections because blood cancer affects the blood cells, causing low blood count and weak immunity,” he says. Fatigue, breathlessness, and difficulty in sucking breast milk are signs not to ignore.

Treatment and preventive care for childhood cancer

Cancer treatments in children and the outcome will be according to their age, type of cancer, and severity. Treatments include chemotherapy, radiation, targeted therapy, and sometimes immunotherapy. “Inherently, children’s bodies react differently to cancer than adults, and their responses to treatment are usually positive,” says Dr Naik. He reasons that it could be because children have a higher immunity and resistance to cancer than adults, whose immunity decreases with age. “As adults suffer from co-morbidities such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or hypertension, cancer treatment becomes risky,” he adds.

After treatment, Dr Naik mentions that it’s perfectly normal and safe for children to return to school, and it’s also encouraged for them to go back to their routine. “They must take precautions, like wearing masks, to avoid infections and environmental hazards as much,” he says. 

Dr Kathwate stresses that parents must follow the vaccination schedule and get their children vaccinated on time, especially the human papillomavirus vaccine (HPV), which can reduce the risk of cervical cancer in the future.

Takeaways

  • The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that 4,00,000 children and adolescents develop cancer each year. 
  • Genetics, unhealthy lifestyles, and environmental changes are found to be causes of childhood cancer.
  • Leukaemia, lymphoma, and brain tumors are common kinds of cancers in children.
  • Parents must be cautious of noting non-specific symptoms and must seek medical assistance as soon as possible.

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